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2018 Geopolitics

Fears over the geopolitical outlook are way overdone. The best description of the coming year is likely to be: Plus ca change plus c’est la meme chose.


THERE is no shortage of gloom and doom with regard to the geopolitical outlook in 2018. For many, war is just around the corner. An Ipsos MORI survey published in the New Year found that almost 40% of Brits expect war to break-out between the USA and North Korea, in 2018.

The ‘doomsters’ tend to focus on 4 significant threats. First the potential for North Korea to weaponise a nuclear missile, and then escalate the probability of actually firing it. The second perceived threat is that Hezbollah will launch a conventional missile attack – from its arsenal of 120,000 - on Israel, ordered by its masters in Tehran. The third threat is that jihadists will fly drones into major demographic concentrations – such as football stadiums – and detonate biological or chemical devices. Finally, there is the threat of a seismic cyber attack which takes down the economy e.g. on the US electricity grid. All of these are scary prospects, but what are the odds of them actually happening?

With regard to North Korea, Kim Jong Un is yet to prove that he can fire a weaponised nuclear missile which will remain intact and on target as it re-enters the earth’s atmosphere. Even if we assume that point will be reached, its still doesn’t mean the conflict could escalate further. Rocket man maybe many things, but he surely isn’t that simple. He will be very aware that, in the Tweet of President Trump, “my red button is bigger than his”. Realpolitik could also see a US decision to live with the reality of a nuclear armed North Korea, because the potential costs of attacking it are so high.

Moving on to Hezbollah, Iran is already advancing its sphere of influence in the Middle East. War with Israel would only set back its advances to date. Moreover, Iran has significant problems at home, shown by recent unrest, which suggests the Government will be more inward than outwardly focused this year. Of course, the oldest trick in politics is to divert attention from unrest at home, with a unifying foreign war, but the threat of any re-introduction of economic sanctions will undoubtedly play on the minds of the Tehran Government.

The WMD threat from drones may or may not emerge, who knows? But unless a direct link is established from a sovereign state to a terrorist group, even a drone strike would be unlikely to upset the geopolitical balance. However, the WMD threat might reverse the downward defence spending trends in the West, and see expenditure rising for the first time since the end of the Cold War. Not that this would address the asymmetric threat from drones, but rather a political token to show that something was being done by politicians.

The cyber security threat is very real, but it is long known and, one hopes, the system is sufficiently resilient to external threat. Only time will tell. One suspects the most significant cyber attack in 2018 will be US retaliation for Russian activity in the 2016 US Presidential Election. The US could well interfere in the 2018 Russian Presidential Election. Let’s face it, Russian Presidential Elections are hardly the pinnacle of democracy, and few tears would be shed in the West for any US retaliatory action. Cyber attacks to interfere with elections are very different to those that could bring down an economy. It is the latter which could or would trigger physical combat.

The geopolitical doom and gloom is overdone. The best description of 2018 is likely to be: Plus ca change plus c’est la meme chose.